Monday, April 26, 2010

In advocating for others, listening is prime

If you hang around feminist, or other marginalized-group-related, websites enough, you'll hear a lot of people screaming at the top of their lungs that they are allies, dammit.  Which is silly, right?  I mean, marginalized groups should be thrilled to have non-marginalized buddies.  Why should they have to yell to get our attention?  Well, it's a bit more complicated than that.

See, the problem with the "screaming allies," as I shall call them, is that they often use their voices to drown out those of the people they're trying to help.  Their privilege in being part of the non-marginalized group often gives them a bigger platform than the marginalized, and rather than use it to elevate the concerns of the marginalized (who are, don't get me wrong, NOT monolithic and shouldn't be treated as such), they use it to spread their own "take" on the problems of the oppressed.

The Freddie DeBoer blow-up on Tiger Beatdown illustrates this issue.  Tiger Beatdown is a witty, frequently caustic feminist blog run by the indomitable Sady Doyle.  Freddie is a screaming ally of the man-feminist (manifest?) variety.  He commented on a recent "sexist beatdown" (TM) post that he thought Sady's jokes were um, interfering with her intellectual rigor.  Or something.  Anyway, Sady was not having any of that BS, and so she beat Freddie down in a very long and very explicative-filled post, because that is what she does on Tiger Beatdown.  Freddie's feelings were hurt because he is a  feminist and he is trying to help!  I don't know if I would have gone to the lengths Sady went to to make it, but she had an extremely valuable point.  If you want to be a feminist, the first thing you should probably not do is tell women what to do, how to fight their battles, and why they're doing it wrong, according to you.  From Sady [NSFW language]:
[Freddie's “feminism"] is not based on any obligation to listen to or learn from the people that feminism is intended to help.  In social justice circles, this phenomenon is known as “entitlement.” Or, in Internet social justice circles, where we give everything LOLcatty names because we can and it amuses us, we call it “mansplaining.” If Freddie were an actual ally, someone who was coming correct to feminism, he would still probably fall into the Pit of Mansplanation every so often. Just as I, an anti-racist white woman, fall into the Pit of Whitesplaining. Just as I, a pro-trans cisgender lady, fall into the Pit of Cissplaining. But when it happens to me, I try to behave myself. When Nitsuh Abebe tells me to fucking stop referring to hipster indie music criticism as a “white thing,” because he works for Pitchfork and  he writes hipster indie music criticism and he’s black and I fucking well know that enough to not erase him from my account of the world, well: I type the words “you’re right,” and I apologize, and then I fucking stop doing it. Because that’s how an ally behaves, as I understand it. When C.L. Minou points out to me that I need to stop complaining about how awkward period sex is, because the worst thing that’s going to happen to me if I have an Unpleasant Revelation For A Straight Dude along those lines is that the dude is not going to want to have sex with me, and will maybe act like a douche about it, whereas if she discloses some of her own Revelations to a straight dude she’s been making out with, there’s a substantial chance that she will get fucking murdered, because that happens often, well: I shut the fuck up about period sex, is what I do.
If someone really wants to help, if they really want to advocate for an oppressed group, the very first thing they need to do is listen.  At first, some of the things you hear are likely to make you uncomfortable, as Mongoose said reading Kate Harding's book on fat acceptance made her feel, and as I've felt reading about ableist language.  I'm still not all the way there on ableist language--I haven't removed all ableist words from my vocabulary yet, and I'm not sure when I'll be ready to.  This tells me I'm not ready to be an ally yet.  I can be a passive supporter; I can be an active listener.  I can try to make my blog a safe place for people with disabilities, actively elicit their feedback, and learn more about their cause.  But I'll tell you what I will not be doing: I won't be going on persons-with-disabilities blogs and ranting about what pwd should be doing to help their cause and which issues they need to be focusing on.  Even if I move from my status as learning about this issue to becoming an ally, I will still sometimes slip up.  There, again, I will need to treat the knowledge of people within this group as prime, listen to their concerns, and try to evaluate my actions if I am to remain an ally.

For any ally, there will come a time where they disagree with a person who belongs to the group they're trying to help.  How could they not?  I assure you, people within that group disagree all the time!  This is when the urge to speak out, and speak loudly, becomes irrepressible.  And this is also the time when listening is more important than ever.  Because if you want to take sides on an issue that doesn't affect you, you need to be darn sure you're doing it in a way that doesn't further marginalize the people it does affect.  This is one reason we are making a large effort at femonomics to link to the work of people affected by an issue when we discuss that issue.  It's ok to have our say on it, but not to the exclusion of listening to theirs.

And for those of us who are members of the oppressed group?  We should recognize that our experience is a valuable asset in cultivating allies and spreading information.  In fact, we carry a kind of privilege, too--the privilege of authenticity (and please don't get mad at me for saying this--I am in no way implying that this "privilege" is on par with the privilege of the majority).  In certain settings, our experience and knowledge is paramount and we should be careful of being too dismissive of those who seek it out.  When would-be allies approach our issues with ignorance, I try to give them the benefit of the doubt.  I try to avoid resorting to "you don't get it" huffiness straight off the bat.  I've been there, many times, and huffed I have.  But the problem is, sometimes people honestly don't get it, and they're willing to learn, they're just going about it in an extremely clumsy way.  I am not saying any oppressed person has any obligation to do this, nor would I blame them if they simply don't have the patience for it.  I hear those marginalized commenters who say they are tired of always having to play the patient teacher while the privileged display willful ignorance.  I am also not suggesting that we show patience toward people who approach an issue in bad faith.  Those who pose as allies while not making the slightest effort to understand an issue, who make the same points over and over again, who display indignation instead of interest, they don't deserve our time.  But there are some people out there who are uninformed but willing to learn.  There are people who are ready to become allies; ready to take my advice and listen.

So once in a while, let's do a public service: give them something to listen to.


  1. I think that this post over at Tiger Beatdown has some great tips on this. Targeted at men in feminist discussions, but more broadly applicable to other privileged situations.

  2. This is a great post. Thank you!


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